Having called Samuel and revealed to him the doom of Eli’s house, “the Lord appeared again in Shiloh,” so we read, “for the Lord revealed Himself to Samuel in Shiloh by the word of the Lord. And the word of Samuel came to all Israel.” As was explained, the word of Samuel that came to all Israel was not a command to the effect that Israel march to battle against the Philistines. But it was indicative of the fact that the Lord again was about to do great and terrible things, that, in other words, the salvation of the faithful was nigh. For Israel again had a prophet; of God. After four hundred years of silence, the Lord again spake. There were again visions breaking through and spread abroad. And the true Israel rejoiced. Samuel was an answer to their cry, “There is no more any prophet: neither is there any among us that knoweth how long. O God, howlong shall the adversary reproach?” The adversary was reproaching in those days. Israel was being oppressed by the Philistines. And the worship in the sanctuary was in charge of the wicked sons of Eli. And they were not being restrained. But Israel again had a prophet, Samuel, God’s gift to His people, indicating that He was about to send salvation. Even by the mouth of two prophets—”the man of God” and Samuel—judgment had been pronounced on Eli’s house. The promised salvation included certainly the lifting of the oppression of the Philistines. Hannah had made mention of this in her prayer of thanksgiving, “The adversaries of the Lord shall be broken in pieces; out of heaven he shall thunder upon them.”
So were the faithful in Israel—God’s believing people—again reassured, but not only they but the carnal Israel as well but without reason. They, too, concluded that salvation was nigh also for them and that the Lord was for them. And though their hearts were far from God, their expectations ran high, so that they dared to risk war with the Philistines, thinking that the Lord would fight for them. Defeated in battle, they were amazed and asked, ”Wherefore hath the Lord smitten us before our enemies?” Why had the Lord clone that, they meant to say, after reviving our hopes by the gift of Samuel? What they were willingly ignorant of is that the presence of Samuel among them could only indicate that the Lord was about to send salvation to His people, the penitent in Israel and not to men such as they. They wanted deliverance without repentance. But the Lord smote them before their enemies. Still they would not be instructed. They took to them the ark of the covenant of Jehovah out of Shiloh and removed it among them that it might save them out of the hands of their enemies. They thought that it would save them as if by magic, it being the ark of the covenant, and in this lifeless thing they now put their trust, and said to it, “Thou art my God.” Rather than forsake their sins, and turn to the living God, they put their trust in a religious symbol. We need not pause here to set forth the implications of the doing of these Israelites, as this has been done in a former article (The Standard Bearer of June 1, 1946). To be sure, these men of Israel knew better, for they were rational men. Their blindness was not intellectual but spiritual-moral. What they needed is not more instruction in the field of theology but a new heart to receive the instruction that already had been given. What they needed is a severe chastisement, a hard blow that, as blessed to their hearts by Christ’s Spirit, would gender in them the will to put away their idols, including the ark of the covenant—of this object, too, they made an idol, for in it they trusted and believed that it would save them—cleanse themselves of their vain imaginings, think right of God, the knowledge of whom they were holding in unrighteousness, and serve the living God with all their hearts, repenting of their sins. That would be the only solution of their troubles. Hence, the Lord did not give them more instruction, but He dealt them that blow. The Philistines fought, “and Israel was smitten, and fled every man to his tent: and there was a very great slaughter; for their fell of Israel thirty thousand footmen.”
As to the Philistines, the issue of the battle must have amazed them. The men of Israel had been vanquished even with the ark among them. That was proof enough to them that the Jehovah of the Hebrews was but another deity. However famed for His strength it now appeared that He was not the equal of their own god Dagon, who, they wanted to imagine, had given them the victory. And what a victory! Even the ark had been theirs for the taking. They liked to believe that they had captured God. And they were grateful to Dagon for his assistance. He had served them, well. With his cooperation they had conquered. Wanting to give Dagon his due, they brought the ark into his temple as an offering to their deity and set it near him, in order that by its position it might set forth for the Philistines the subjection of Israel’s God to Dagon. How the Philistines taunt God! How vain the thing that they imagine! For they hold the ark because the Lord had delivered it into their hand, the reason being that He “greatly abhorred Israel” on account of their high places and graven images. Therefore “he forsook the tabernacle of Shiloh, the tent which he had placed among men; and delivered his strength,” and thus the ark, “into captivity, and his glory into the enemy’s hand. He gave his people over to the sword; and was wroth with this inheritance. The fire consumed their young men; and their maidens were not given to marriage. Their priests fell by the sword and their widows made no lamentation,” Ps. 78:58-64. In this language the psalmist commemorates by song those catastrophic events. He sets them forth, one and all, as God’s works, which indeed they were, as the human agents through which He wrought—the apostate elders by whose direction the ark was removed to the camp; the Philistines by whose sword Israel’s young men and priests were slain—were His creatures, living and moving and having their being in Him. Therefore the removal of the ark from its resting place in Shiloh was and could be God’s forsaking the tabernacle at Shiloh and the slaying of Israel’s young men and priests by swords wielded by human hands God’s giving over (His people to the sword and the capture of the ark His delivering this symbol into the hands of the adversary.
Yet in their willing ignorance the Philistines ascribe their military achievement to their own arm as strengthened by Dagon and thus interpret it as a triumphing of their god over Jehovah. This is the usual construction placed upon the doing of the Philistines according to which they removed the ark to the temple of their God and stationed it near his image. But their manner of dealing with the ark of the covenant can be explained otherwise. The heathen hero-worshipping Roman emperor Alexander Severus placed the busts of Abraham and Christ in his domestic chapel with those of the heathen gods Orpheus and Appolonius. May it not be that the Philistines assumed a similar attitude toward Jehovah, that they ascribed the victory they had achieved not to Dagon at all but instead to Israel’s God, and that in removing His ark to Dagon’s temple they were telling men that Jehovah, though inferior in power to Dagon, was nevertheless a god to be reckoned with, ranking even with their deity and therefore deserving of a place in his house next to his image. This view of their doing is contradicted by the sacred text, and by other atrocities of theirs alluded to by the psalmist. There is the notice that the ark was taken () and the psalmist speaks of God’s delivering His strength into captivity. Now a capture is a seizure, an act of taking by force or stratagem, and thus implies a combat, a clash of opposing forces. Thus the language of the sacred text discovers to us the thoughts of the hearts of the Philistines as being that they and their god Dagon had emerged victorious from a war with Israel’s God. What is more, having put to flight Israel’s army, the Philistines, so we learn from Psalm 78, hastened to Shiloh, massacred its inhabitants, and slew God’s priests, their aim being to destroy His service and memory from the face of the earth. It shows that they set Jehovah before them not as a hero to be worshipped but as a fallen and contemptible god worthy of their scorn. So did they treat God now that they thought that they had Him in their power. If ever a heathen people were worthy of doom, it was these Philistines at this juncture of their history. Such offences against the divine majesty, the insults such they were heaping upon God’s name, and the injuries such as they did His people, called for severest punishment. It was time for the Lord to act; and He did so. In the poetic language of the psalmist, He, “awakened as one out of sleep, and like a mighty man that shouteth by reason of wine.” This language implies that the Lord had been in a state of slumber. Yet He that keepeth Israel shall neither slumber nor sleep. The Lord is ever absolute action in mind and will and being, so that the thought conveyed is that the working of His strength was such as to effect the triumph of the enemy over Israel and the capture of the ark. That revelation of His power whereby Israel was protected and made to triumph over its foes momentarily ceased. And in that moment the enemy, as raised up and sustained by the Almighty, overcame Israel, and so willed to imagine, Israel’s mighty God. Yet, however vain this imagining. It is true that, whereas the Lord had delivered His strength and glory into their hand, they now held captive the ark and thus, in a figurative sense, God Himself. For symbolically the ark of the covenant was the strength and glory of Jehovah. For its lid, as sprinkled with the blood of the atoning sacrifice, was in Israel the very seat of grace and mercy and saving power and thus of judgment for the adversary. Thus every salutary revelation of the might of the Lord was associated with the ark and took place in connection with it. The people of Israel passed through the Red Sea with the Ark of the covenant holding a position midway between the shores of the sea and in this position holding at bay the floods of water that threatened to engulf the people. In the mind of the people of Israel, the Ark and the Lord were inseparable. This explains their removing the ark to their camp in the war with the Philistines. They expected a new demonstration of divine power in connection with it in their behalf. Their great error was their being willingly ignorant of the fact that they were ill-deserving on account of their apostasies, and that the Lord therefore was against them. A new revelation of divine power took place but only to work the triumph of the Philistines over Israel’s army.
Such then were Israel’s thoughts about the ark. Thus when Eli received tidings that the ark had passed into the hands of the Philistines, he was so shocked that he fell senseless to the ground; and the wife of Phinehas lamented in her dying moment that the glory of Israel had departed. And figuratively it had. The Lord had delivered his strength into the enemies hand, and in a sense was now a captive of the adversary. So he willed it. It was His doing. Nothing like this had even happened. It amazed and perplexed God’s people and their hearts were troubled. The Lord had gone into captivity. Hence in, the capture of the ark and its being held by the adversary is presented as a prefiguration of God’s delivering Christ into the hands of the wicked. And the question was, what would the Philistine now do with the ark of the Lord, now that He had delivered it into their hands. Fundamentally, it was a question what the Philistines would do with God. This is what they did with Him. Through the treatment that they afforded the ark, they heaped contempt upon Him when they set his ark in Dagon’s temple.